Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Brazil devours its mother tongue

By decree of a law passed last week, Portugal will no longer use Portuguese.

Well, not the same kind of Portuguese anyway. In a highly controversial vote that’s been debated for many years, the Portuguese Parliament has effectively changed the written language of Portugal to the type of Portuguese used in Brazil. This new standardization requires a change in spelling for hundreds of words and adds three new letters to the alphabet. All books will have to be republished in Brazilian Portuguese, and school curriculums will now be taught using the new language standardization.

The change was enormously controversial because it was seen as a matter of national pride by the former colonial power. But the seven other Portuguese-speaking countries in the world - Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe – had already standardized to Brazilian years ago.

It was understandably a hard reality for Portuguese to face – adopting the ‘bastardized’ language of their former colonial possession. But the stark reality is this: there are about 230 million Portuguese speakers globally. Brazil accounts for about 190 million of them (83 percent). Portugal has just 10.6 million of them (4.6 percent).

The debate about the changes brings back memories of the tumultuous decolonisation debate that took place in the early 70’s after the death of the dictator Salazar. A petition against the changes has been signed by about 33,000 people in Portugal. But, there’s really no going back now.

Living in the UK and constantly observing the many differences between American English and British English, the concept is a fascinating one to me. Considering that Portugal was the earliest colonial power, could it also be just the earliest to accept the language dominance of its former colony? Spain and France also have sharp differences between their language and the language spoken in their former realms. But considering the regional language differences even within Spain, it’s doubtful the Spanish government would ever be able to get the whole country to agree on any one standardization. And I’ll eat my hat the day I see France start using West African French.

But what about the UK? The country’s media is already dominated by American cultural influence. Seventy percent of films shown in UK theatres are American. When you take cable stations into account, 60 percent of television programming in the UK is American.

The result of this is that, though they don’t speak it, all British people know American English. When I first came here I had a hell of a time learning all of the different words, spelling, expressions and cadences that are used here. I actually had to get an American to British translation book to help me out, and this web site was also quite helpful. But what I found rather unfair is that although I was hearing all of the British words and expressions for the first time, they all already knew the American counterparts of their words. So when I would use the wrong word for something they would laugh, but they would still know what I meant. In fact, the only instances when I’ve not been understood because I’m using an American word (like sneakers, elevator, trunk, band aid, wrench, etc) is when I’m speaking to a foreign person, particularly Eastern Europeans, who have only learned British English here. So culturally, British people are already hearing American English constantly, if not speaking it.

Now let’s look at the numbers. There are roughly 350 million people worldwide who speak English as their first language. 233 million of them are in the US and Canada, where American English is spoken. 84 million of them are in the UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the largest countries in which British English is spoken. That means that there are nearly three times as many American English speakers as there are British English speakers. That may look like nothing compared to the wide margin between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese speakers, but it’s still significant. Can you imagine the UK standardizing its English to the American version?

The short answer is of course no. Though the number of first language speakers may be small, many people globally learn British English as their second language, particularly in India where it is the language of business and government. That gives British English a whole lot of people to back it up! (Although, it should be pointed out, China is learning American English, not British).

Still, it must be darn annoying for manufacturers advertisers and publishers to have to constantly make two different versions of everything so that there aren’t spelling and word discrepancies. I’m often amused when I see a commercial on TV here I know is American but has been dubbed over into British English so it’s using the correct words. One imagines it would save a lot of money and energy harmonizing the two languages.

Maybe Portugal is on to something.


Anonymous said...

I think the ideal solution is to merge the two languages rather than for Portuguese to compeltely give in to Brazilian. That way there's no hard feelings.

Steven said...

Really interesting, I had no idea about this.

jeffrey said...

I chose to study Brazilian Portuguese while at university 30-plus years ago, and even managed to develop a respectable "nordestinho" accent (Northeastern). When I finally managed to visit Portugal in 2006 and 2007, I was surprised to find that many of the expected differences in pronunciation had already vanished. I had no problem at all understanding or being understood in my supposedly quaint Brazilian accent. Until now I had no idea why that might be. Cheers to the Portuguese for accepting the rule of the linguistic majority!

Ananda said...

Interesting news! I didn't know about this and I am certainly curious to see what changes are being done. I am particularly curious to see if the changes involve just changing the standard to something similar to Brazilian Portuguese (for the sake of having a common standard between Brazil and Portugal) or if the changes represent things that have been adopted in spoken Iberian Portuguese (making the written rules closer to speech) (I have no idea, as I don't know what the changes are). Very interesting, I am going to read on the changes.

Anonymous said...

The pronoucing of the words remains though.
I believe these changes are being made because the Brazilian 'version' language is easier to learn, while the Portuguese one is slightly more complicated. This will enhance the spreading of this language.
Some examples are:
húmido -> úmido
acção -> ação
óptimo -> ótimo
hás-de -> hás de

People still write the 'old' way (which is allowed and now considered a higher form of writing), and no one should blame them:
that's how they learnt it.